Friendship, And Distance

I read a post earlier today from my blogging friend in Australia, Lloyd Marken. He wrote about attending the wedding of a friend. Since those friends had grown up, got married, and moved around the vast country that is Australia, they don’t get to see that much of each other. But when he was invited to that old friend’s wedding, he did not hesitate to book a hotel, then drive almost 800 miles to Sydney.

Real friends are like gold dust. Real friends endure, despite distances that might separate you. And they rarely judge you.

Compared to Australia, England is tiny. Yet moving just 140 miles from London means that I rarely see my oldest and best friends. Add to that the sad fact that a few of them have died, and you might be forgiven for thinking that my friends are now few and far between.

Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

Despite lack of physical contact since I moved to Beetley, made worse by travel restrictions during the pandemic lockdowns, my oldest friends are undoubtedly still my best friends, whether I am able to see them, or not.

There is nothing I would not do for those real friends. I would give them my last pound, lie in court for them, and give them my car if they needed to drive anywhere. I would let them stay in my house rent-free, send them food, in fact anything they ever needed or wanted.

The simple fact that I no longer live near any of them is meaningless. For that matter, I could be living in Australia, and never see them again.

But they would be my best friends, until my dying day.

A Life In Music: Roland Kemp

One of my greatest and oldest friends is Roland Kemp. Photographer, video artist, and musician, he has spent most of his life in one band or another. The first time I met him when I was just 17, it was when a friend took me to see his band play in a small hall in Eltham, South London.

Over fifty-one years ago.

His latest project is this song, called ‘The New Blues’. This is right up my street musically, and comes with an excellent video showcasing the female vocalist, Molly Alro, and many images relevant to the lyrics. If you enjoyed it, please give the video a ‘Like’ on You Tube.

The Blues: Some Songs For Brian

Continuing to celebrate the life of my dear departed friend, I am presenting some of the original versions of songs he loved to listen to and sing.

Smokestack Lightnin’. Howlin’ Wolf.

Still Got The Blues. Gary Moore.

She’s 19 Years Old. Muddy Waters.

Bring It on Home. Sonny Boy Williamson.

Boom Boom. John Lee Hooker.

I am not a religious man. But if there is a Heaven, I like to think that Brian is there now, enjoying a raucous jam session with Howlin’, Gary, Muddy, Sonny Boy, and John Lee.

Brian Cushion: RIP

I wrote this post on Saturday. Most of you will remember it.

I received many kind comments, and my blogging friends and followers were, as always, very sympathetic.

Later that day, I got the news that my dear friend had died late that afternoon. So I thought it appropriate to update everyone with that.

I refuse to let Brian be a statistic, so here is something about his life, and the kind of man he was.

Troubled in his teens by the bone-wasting disease, Osteomyelitis, he was determined not to let the constant medical treatment get him down. He turned to music instead, with a voice to rival the Blues singers of the past, and even equal to the great Howlin’ Wolf. I was 17 years old when I met him, and he was singing at the front of a band, performing in a school hall in the London suburbs.

We were soon firm friends, and that friendship lasted for 51 years. Even though he has died, we are still friends, and always will be.

He later married, and I was the best man at the wedding. He and his wife had a daughter who he loved so dearly, becoming more than a father to her, a friend as well.

Over the decades, we lived together in a shared house, and spent a huge amount of time in each other’s company. We played Monopoly with an intensity usually reserved for Chess masters, and constantly disagreed on many things, especially politics. We shared holidays together, and saw each other through relationship and marriage break-ups, bad times and good times.

Many years later, decades of pain klling drugs caused his kidneys to fail. Brian had to go onto a dialysis regime until a transplant became available and he underwent the operation. Following that, he spent the rest of his days taking a daily cocktail of tablets, and having to attend hospital constantly. He still managed to play golf whenever he could, and once he retired, he rented a flat next to the golf club car park. He also continued to sing and perform with Blues bands around London and Kent.

Here he is five years ago, at his last ever gig. He is the man in the hat, singing and playing a harmonica. The pretty fair-haired girl at the front of the audience is his daughter.

He worked as a copy editor and proof reader, where his obsession with correct grammar and punctuation served him well. When I started this blog, he was one of my earliest and most loyal supporters, though he never failed to correct errors I made.

Brian was a good man, a loving father, and a true friend.

He will never be just a number.

A Covid-19 Saturday: Getting Personal

Typing with a heavy heart today, after receiving some bad news yesterday.

I have often written on here that I have so far been unaware of any personal connection to the pandemic, and didn’t know of anyone who had contracted the virus.

Now that has changed.

One of my dearest and oldest friends is dying from complications of Covid-19. A man I have known and loved for 51 years, through the thick and thin of our lives. He was the best man at my first wedding, and I did the same at his. He had underlying health conditions, having endured Osteomyelitis in his youth, then going through dialysis and kidney transplant in middle age. I had got used to him being ill, and often marvelled at how he managed to pull through at times of medical crisis.

Then along came the Coronavirus.

He has declined to be sedated and connected to a ventilator, choosing pain-killing drugs and being conscious to the end. He is not going to see his yet-unborn grandchild, and is likely to be denied the chance of a last visit from anyone dear to him too. To keep them safe.

No doubt he will be added to the tragic numbers of people in this country officially lost to the virus. But this is the real impact of knowing someone who is on that list. The heartbreak, the flooding back of memories, concern for his pregnant daughter, and knowing how his loss will affect not only his immediate family, but our wider circle of friends too.

I will walk Ollie today, thinking about my friend. Then I will sit in a chair in the garden this evening, still thinking about him.

And he knows he will never be forgotten, and will always be loved.

Blogging, and Coronavirus

As this new dangerous virus sweeps around the world, one good thing about staying at home more is that we can all spare some time to keep blogging. Some bloggers live alone, and their online community is very important to them. In some cases, it might be the only regular human interaction they enjoy.

But even as we isolate, let’s not forget those less fortunate. Reach out to fellow bloggers, and find out of any of them live nearby. Near enough that you might be able to help them, if needed. Without physical contact, we can still help each other. Perhaps get some extra groceries, and drop them off outside. Payment is easy to arrange through Paypal, after all.

Or maybe we can all just try that little bit harder to read and comment on the posts of our friends in this wonderful WordPress community. Let them know someone is reading, listening, and thinking about them too.

As anyone who has been blogging for over a year will be aware, bloggers are essentially kind and caring people, with a great sense of community. Many of us regard our blogging friends as real genuine friends. We worry about them when they are absent, and get to know a great deal about them over the years of following and being followed.

Unlike those selfish panic-buyers and hoarders, we can show the world that bloggers are genuinely caring and supportive. Yes we have to make sure us and our families are safe. But once we have done that, spare some thought, and time, to keep in touch with our online friends too.

I send everyone my best wishes, and my hope that none of you fall victim to this pandemic.

My friend the sculptor

In the mid-1970s, my friend Malcolm Poynter was beginning to experiment with a new form of sculpture, known as life-casting. Subjects were covered in a thick white substance that formed into a mould, and when this was removed, resin would be applied. The end result was a perfect life-like representation, even down to any skin blemishes, and hair follicles. Malcolm chose his subjects from his friends and their families, also making good use of his own girlfriend at the time.

I was also persuaded to help, and this is one of the many bizarre results. My own head, literally on a plate.

The father of another friend, a man called Frank Kemp, was also persuaded to join in. This was one of many versions of his head.

Malcolm went on to lead a very successful life as an artist in this field. As well as lecturing at London’s Goldsmith’s College, he designed restaurants in Japan, and created huge installations too. Like this one.

He currently lives and works in Austria, in a massive converted building that allows him to display his work. He is a lovely man, and a great character too. I feel privileged to be his friend. Here he is, in self-portrait.

If you are inspired to look at more of his work, please visit his own website, where you will find many fascinating examples.

Friday morning

(I wrote this yesterday afternoon, after receiving the news. I wasn’t sure that I was going to post it after all, and left it in drafts. Today, I decided to publish the post, in memory of my dear friend.)

I got some bad news today. It wasn’t completely unexpected, but no less heartbreaking for that.

One of my dearest and best friends died, after a long battle with a painful and debilitating cancer. He was only 57 years old, and had so much left to give, and to enjoy. I thought about our friendship for a long time, then took Ollie for a walk on the cold and grey afternoon that reflected my mood so well.

I first met Billy in the late 1980s, when he came to work at the ambulance station in Notting Hill, London. It seemed unlikely back then that we would ever become such firm friends. I was the experienced, somewhat bitter man. He was the gentle new boy, seeing good in everyone, keeping his head down, and keen to do his best in a strange new world. He stood a full ten inches taller than me, and had a background that couldn’t have been more different.

Very soon, Billy was a popular figure. Staff at the hospitals loved his good manners, and open personality. Patients recognised his caring nature, and colleagues appreciated his keenness, and his involvement in the life of the small ambulance station. Not long after, we were embroiled in the bitter dispute that became the six-month long national ambulance strike, from 1989-1990. Billy threw himself into that, alongside the rest of us. He came in every day, designed and painted posters and banners, and helped out wherever he could. He was no militant (like me) but could see the injustice, so resolved to fight it.

Just after the strike, we became crew-mates. An unlikely pair to work together every day, perhaps. But he mellowed my cynicism, and I helped him toughen up enough to cope. Outside of work, we also became great friends. Long evenings enjoying listening to music, talking about literature and films, and enjoying meals in each others flats. I used to complain that talking to him made my neck hurt, always having to lift my head to speak to someone so much taller. We laughed most of the time too, sharing a sense of black humour, and the often hilariously ridiculous situations we found ourselves in. Yet when things got serious, we did the right thing, and Billy soon became a very accomplished Paramedic indeed.

Billy had a full and fascinating life, and was a man of huge artistic talent too. Born and brought up in America, he came back to the UK with his family at the age of eight, and settled in rural Oxfordshire. Always a spiritual person, Billy went into the Catholic Church, becoming a monk and working in the community in the Midlands. But he became disillusioned with the restrictions and attitudes of life in that field, so left to return to his love of music and books. A wonderful guitarist, he played in bands, and even toured and made records. He wrote songs, and made many contacts in that world too. He later became a librarian in the London district of Camden, before deciding to join the ambulance service, to help the community. He continued to make music, to paint and draw, and to explore religions and philosophies. He was one of the most interesting and intelligent people I ever met.

He was also an excellent cook, and a great host. He loved to experiment with Medieval and Elizabethan recipes, and his Simnel cake and Game Pie were both wonderful examples of that. He loved parties too, and the famously over the top Halloween parties, a legacy of his American youth, were a delight to attend. A welcoming and generous nature guaranteed that any evening spent in his company was always something to anticipate with relish. And a few glasses of Jack Daniels always helped too.

Over the years, our friendship continued to grow. For a long time, we lived a stone’s throw from each other in Camden, which made it much easier to socialise. When he grew restless in the job, I encouraged him to apply for promotion, and he was successful in being appointed to become a Training Officer at the regional Paramedic training centre for London. But he didn’t stop there, continuing to rise through the ranks until he was one of the highest-ranking officers in the London Ambulance Service. None of this went to his head though, and had no affect on our long friendship. When Julie and I married, he was a witness to our marriage. And when he had a Civil Ceremony with his partner Ian, I was honoured to be asked to do the same.

Billy and Ian bought a house in Oxfordshire, and moved away from the bustle of life in London. They got two dogs, and enjoyed their free time in the countryside. But they never forgot their friends, and we were always welcome. When We moved to Norfolk, they soon came to visit, and we enjoyed a great weekend touring around the area. Ironically, it was during this visit that I asked if he would be kind enough to say a few words at my own funeral, when the time came. Little did I know that he would go before me, and even as I type these words, it is impossible to think that he has.

A few days before Christmas, Julie and I went to visit Billy in a hospice where he was having treatment. We took Ollie along too. It was upsetting to see him in pain, but he did his best to stay cheerful, patting Ollie, and talking about everyday things. As we said our farewells, it was obvious that we both knew that this would be the last time we would ever see each other.

And it was.

William O’Neill. 1959-2017. You will never be forgotten.

Tulips for Julia

At the end of our garden there is a flower bed, one of the few we have. It is made from some old railway sleepers that raise it above the lawn. When we moved here, we were unsure about what to use it for. We considered everything from herbs to tomatoes, but despite weeding it, and turning the soil, it remained bare for some time.

Then we thought about Julia.

Julia was a lovely lady, and the mutual friend that introduced me to Julie all those years ago. She worked as a nursing sister and raised her son, never asking for much from life. Happy with the company of her good friends and family, loving her cat, and enjoying sunbathing in her neat and well-kept garden. Despite suffering from a terminal illness, she was able to give Julie away at our wedding, and the next year we enjoyed her company for a few days, at a holiday house in the Cotswolds. On the evening that she passed away, Julie was at her bedside, holding her hand. Her funeral was held on a freezing cold winter’s day, with deep snow carpeting Hertfordshire.

Once we had a garden, we soon discovered that we had little idea about plants and flowers, and hadn’t thought too much what to do with our newly-acquired space. But something to remember Julia was high on that list. The bulbs were purchased and planted, and we waited. Sure enough, they came up, and have returned every year since. We always think of her, and could never forget her. But the annual arrival of ‘Julia’s Tuilps’ provides us with a colourful reminder of the friend we lost.

During a sunny period this morning, I took some photos of the flowers. They are large files, and can be clicked on for detail.

I know the bed needs weeding, and the lawn needs cutting too. I just need a few dry days…

The colours are always just right. Bold from a distance, subtle up close.

For Julia Ward. Always in our hearts.

Letters from beyond

On the 18th January this year, I published a post about the sudden death of one of my oldest friends. Since then, his family, and all of us who miss him, have been to his funeral, read eulogies in the press, and continued to correspond about the hole that his passing has left in our lives.

Recently, the time came for his son and daughter to undertake the painful task of clearing the belongings from his flat in Surrey. This is never going to be a good thing, but often throws up memories that are as pleasant as some others are sad. One of the joys of my long relationship with Pete, was the fact that we always wrote to each other. We were not the sort to chat on the telephone, and during the long period that he lived and worked in Canada, we began a long series of letters, many sent during some very difficult times in my life.

This continued after he returned to England. Despite the fact he was back in the country, we had got into the habit of writing, and just carried on. Sometimes the letters were long, though occasionally just one page of updates, containing little of consequence. But they were important to me, and I hoped that they were to him also. Most were handwritten, but some were typed, others even printed off. Once computers became common, we progressed to e-mail, which was a real bonus, as Pete’s handwriting was never easy to read, and something of a skill to decipher.

Late last week, I received a hefty parcel in the post. Inside, I found a manila folder, with Pete’s distinctive writing on it. Inside that folder were most of the letters I had ever sent him, dating back to the late 1980s, and before. It is hard to describe how I felt when I started to look at them. The first thing that dawned on me was that I had not kept any that he sent me. I have never been a keeper of letters, despite corresponding with many friends over the years. I was touched that his son Jim had sent them to me. I have no doubt that Pete kept and filed similar correspondence from many of his friends, and hope that they might have received similar parcels.

I tried to read some of the letters. It is strange reading something that you wrote to send to someone else. Not something that you would normally ever do. Once those thoughts and words had been posted, they tended to be forgotten, unless they were referred to in the reply. I looked at the dates, the different addresses, saw more than thirty years of my life in writing and print. Then I closed the folder again. I am not sure that I am ready to read those thoughts once again. Not just yet, anyway.

Even in death, Pete proved what a friend he was, and left me a legacy that has no price.